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Local Shepherd's, Distant Magi
from In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church
Dr. Paul L. Maier
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." Luke 2:8 - 12
There was something peculiarly public about
births in ancient times. There were no hospital maternity wards that only the
family could visit, no looking at baby through the nursery window or donning
sterile, antiseptic masks. The birth of a baby in Jewish families of the time,
especially of a boy, was the signal for general rejoicing in the neighborhood
and a feast for the relatives and friends, who came crowding in to see the
But since Joseph and Mary were in special circumstances at Bethlehem, far from their Nazareth home, festivities would be in a different key, even if they did have relatives in the Bethlehem area. Strangely, the only guests at the Nativity mentioned in the New Testament were the shepherds and the Magi.
That lowly shepherds should have been the very first to learn about what had happened in Bethlehem has struck some commentators as incongruous, and attempts have been made to "upgrade" the shepherds. So they are represented as not the ordinary kind of nomadic herdsmen who often infuriated the rabbis by their manner of life, their sometimes necessary absence from the synagogue, and their failure to fulfill the Law. Instead, these were supposed to have been special shepherds who were guarding flocks destined for sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple, and this would explain their readiness to welcome a newborn Messiah.
Whether or not this is true, any special "rehabilitation" of the shepherds is hardly necessary in the Christmas story. If, resorting to symbolism, the wise men represented privilege, wealth, and intelligence, so the shepherds stood for the cross-sectional, average Judean - quite literally, too, "the man on the night shift." For shepherding was one of the oldest and most important vocations among the ancient Hebrews, who first came into their Promised Land as nomadic shepherds and herdsmen, not as farmers.
The Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds. Such Old Testament heroes as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds at some time in their lives, and the Twenty-third Psalm remains one of the most beautiful commentaries on shepherding ever written. In the New testament, the familiar figure of Jesus as "The Good Shepherd" underscores the theme. In fact, the modern terms "pastor" and "bishop" both derive from the ancient words for "shepherd" and "overseer-guardian;" and to this day the bishop's staff is a shepherd's crook. Perhaps it was highly appropriate, after all, that shepherds be the first guests at the first Christmas.
They may well have lived in the herdsmen's village of Beit Sahur, just below Bethlehem, and have been pasturing their flocks at night on the sloping expanse just east of Bethlehem that is still pointed out as the Shepherds' Fields. Besides keeping such long hours, herdsmen had to protect their sheep from ravaging animals and robbers by skillful use of staff and sling, or a metal-studded club about a yard long. A well-trained sheepdog was almost as effective as the shepherd in defending the flock. Herdsmen were also expected to shear the wool, aid in lambing, and see that their flocks had enough to eat and drink. While the sheep were grazing, the men often passed the time by playing folk tunes on their pipes.
The names of the shepherds who witnessed the Nativity will doubtless never be known, but they win our respect. Perhaps it was fortunate that they were common laymen, for had they been scholars or theologian, they would likely first have held a debate on the hillside instead of rushing into Bethlehem after the glad announcement, the conservatives insisting they would never leave the sheep, and the liberals labeling the angelic appearance a mere hallucination. No one has bothered to inquire if anyone stayed behind to watch the sheep while they were gone, but we can safely assume that the first thing the shepherds did the morning after their night of spreading word about the newborn Christ was to take a head count of their sheep!
Today, the chief breed of sheep in Palestine is the broad-tailed variety (Ovis lalicaudala), and there is every reason to presume that the flocks still grazing in the hills around Bethlehem today descended from the very sheep whose foraging was so extraordinarily interrupted that night of nights.
The Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." (Matthew 2:1 - 2)
How much time elapsed between the adoration
of the shepherds and the visit of the Magi is not known, but the mysterious men
from the East do not seem to have arrived until after Jesus' presentation at
the Temple in Jerusalem, forty days after he was born. Unfortunately, little
more is known of the Magi than of the shepherds.
"We three kings of Orient are . So the beloved Christmas carol begins, but already it has made at least three errors. First, how many Wise Men made the trip to Bethlehem is not known. And they were not "kings." And they did not come from as far away as the "Orient," that is, the Far East.
Tradition, of course, has placed their number at three, probably because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they presented to the infant Jesus, the assumption being one gift, one giver. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve. Legend has also supplied names in the case of the three (Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), and has even reported their ages (twenty, forty, and sixty), as well as their skin colors (white, yellow, and black). But these names arise first in the sixth century A.D., too late for any authenticity, and their ages and races are too obviously spaced.
Supposedly, Thomas, the apostle to India, found and baptized the Magi into the Christian faith, ordaining them as priests. Later, they suffered martyrdom, and their relics were presumably buried in Constantinople but then transferred to the cathedral at Cologne in Germany during the twelfth century, where they rest today. But no one takes such claims seriously.
The Greek of the New Testament calls them simply magoi apo anatolon, "magi from the East," and the term magoi is usually translated as wise men, astrologers, or magicians. "The East" has been variously identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but no farther east.
Most of the evidence points to Mesopotamian or Persian origins for the magi, who were an old and powerful priestly caste among both Medes and Persians. These priest-sages, extremely well educated for their day, were specialists in medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination, and magic, and their caste eventually spread across much of the East. As in any other profession, there were both good and bad magi, depending on whether they did research in the sciences or practiced augury, necromancy, and magic. The Persian magi were credited with higher religious and intellectual attainments, while the Babylonian magi were sometimes deemed imposters.
The safest conclusion is that the Magi of Christmas were Persian, for the term originates among the Medo-Persians, and early Syriac traditions give them Persian names. Primitive Christian art in the second-century Roman catacombs dresses them in Persian garments, and a majority of Early Church fathers interpret them as Persian. Indeed, the reason invading Persians spared the Church of the Nativity in 614 was that they saw a golden mosaic over the doorway, depicting the wise men in Persian headdress.
However, if the astronomical aspects of the
Christmas story are emphasized - the great star and its role - a case could be
made that the Magi were late Babylonians, since astronomy reached its highest
development in Mesopotamia.
Whatever the origin of the Eastern sages, their visit was of great significance for later Christianity: the Wise Men were pagans, not Hebrews, and the fact that Gentile magi performed the same adoration as Jewish shepherds symbolized the universal outreach for future Christianity. "Nations [Gentiles] shall come to your light," the prophet Isaiah had written, "and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Isaiah 60:3).
The star that guided them to Bethlehem, discussed in the next chapter, had both local and international significance. The Hebrews expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah (Num. 24:17) - a later pseudo-Messiah tried to capitalize on this belief by calling himself Bar-Kokhba, "Son of a Star" and Eastern sages were acquainted with Hebrew beliefs because of the large Jewish colony in Babylon and elsewhere. Even Roman authors of the time spoke of the grandiose things expected in Palestine. "There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world," wrote Suetonius. Therefore when the Magi inquired of Herod, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" their question was not really spoken out of a vacuum.
The scene of proud and richly costumed sages worshiping a baby in the humblest of circumstances has etched itself on the world's imagination, for it is a graphic study in contrasts. The gifts they presented are usually interpreted symbolically. Gold, a royal gift, signified Jesus' kingship. Frankincense, a fragrant gum resin burned as incense, denoted his future priesthood. This substance consisted of small whitish beads or chunks that were ground into powder and that gave off an odor like balsam when burned. The third gift, myrrh, called smyrna in Greek, was an aromatic orange-colored resin from the small, thorny trees of the Commiphora family. Myrrh was expensive and much esteemed for use in perfumes, anointing oil, medicine, and embalming. That, years later, the crucified Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh as a palliative (Mark 15:23) and was also buried with the substance (John 19:39) renders this gift of the Magi predictive enough.
After their adoration at the manger, the Wise Men disappear from history, leaving a multitude of questions in their wake. Almost unidentifiable, they have still become some of the most familiar figures in Western culture, for their clumsy camels have lumbered back into the Nativity scene every year since Christmas was first celebrated.
And they did achieve their purpose in the total story of Christmas, which was to expand it. Up to now, the Nativity had been highly local in nature: only a few people of the lower classes of just one nationality had been involved. But the visit of the Magi burst all that, as rich Gentiles joined poor Jews, as King Herod and the priestly establishment in Jerusalem became concerned, and even the stars looked in.
Luke 2:8 - 12
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Matthew 2:1 - 2
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.
He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.
Taken from In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church by Dr. Paul L. Maier. You can order In the Fullness of Time for a total of $20 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.
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